CSIR launches new centre to support 21st century industries in South Africa

5th March 2021 By: Rebecca Campbell - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) officially launched its new Photonics Prototyping Facility (PPF) on Friday. The new facility is funded by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and is the fifth DSI-funded facility at the CSIR. 

Photonics is usually associated with optics. “Optics and photonics is the study of the fundamental properties of light and harnessing them in practical applications,” is the definition used by the journal Nature Research. “Optics and photonics covers the entire electromagnetic spectrum from high-energy gamma rays and X-rays, through the optical regime of ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light, to long-wavelength microwave and radio waves.”

The field of photonics ranges from lasers to using light to communicate data. In his opening address at the launch of the facility, CSIR CEO Dr Thulani Dlamini highlighted that photonics had many applications, across a wide range of disciplines, including health, information and communications technology, and manufacturing, as well as in science and technological development. 

But he observed that South Africa had not yet grasped the full potential of photonics, and he hoped that the new facility would increase the awareness of this potential. It was intended to stimulate the development of the local photonics industry and the development of local photonics technology. It would provide the CSIR’s industrial partners with access to world-class expertise and facilities to allow them to test and upscale the technologies that they developed.

The PPF is intended to benefit (indeed, to promote the creation of) small, medium-sized and microenterprises as well as larger companies. It can provide optical and technical equipment across a range of wavelengths, including diagnostic, electronic and mechanical equipment. It can also provide ‘class 1000’ clean rooms (which is US Federal Standard 209E classification; the equivalent International Standards Organisation classification is ISO 6, in a ranking in which ISO 9 covers normal room air and ISO 1 applies to the cleanest of clean rooms).

CSIR principal researcher Dr Darryl Naidoo stressed that photonics had revolutionised science and engineering in the twenty-first century. Consequently, the new facility was extremely important for South Africa, as any upgrade of local industry would involve photonics. The CSIR saw the photonics market as one of the drivers of economic development and job creation in the country.

In his address, DSI deputy director-general Imraan Patel pointed out that the PPF was one of a ‘package’ of centres supported by the DSI that were focused on new industries, such as nanotechnology and biotechnology. He referred to them as ‘industrial centres’. “We are using these to grow new sectors,” he said. He expressed the opinion that the term ‘industrial research’ in the CSIR’s name really meant ‘applications research’. He further observed that, while the short-term priority was economic recovery, once that had been achieved, the priority would become the reconstruction of the economy. “We should be ready.” The PPF was clearly focused on economic reconstruction. 

He stressed the importance of – “the critical need for” – transformation, but noted that this was a multidimensional concept. It was not just about the composition of the leadership or the cohort of researchers, but also about “ownership” and transforming the economy. The benefits of the PPF should be broad-based, and not narrow. There was also a need for a greater geographic distribution of such industrial centres.

Patel additionally emphasised the importance of partnerships to the CSIR, not only with industry but also with the ‘skills system’ – that is, the country’s tertiary education and training institutions. He pointed out that both these and the CSIR now reported to the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology. He also urged the CSIR to ensure that the PPF was aligned with the government’s policies and objectives. He noted that the “core challenges” of poverty, inequality and unemployment remained constant concerns.

DSI director-general Dr Phil Mjwara also made a few comments at the launch event, affirming that the PPF was going to be a great success. He also reported that, at the last ‘lekgotla’ (strategy planning session) of the South African Cabinet, there had been unprecedented interest in the DSI and its potential regarding the stimulation of economic development. “Don’t underestimate what you’re doing,” he told the PPF team, and assured the CSIR of the DSI’s support.

In his closing remarks, CSIR group executive: mining, manufacturing, defence and security Dr Motodi Maserumule, described the PPF as “one of the most critical infrastructure that is required” by the country. He also expressed appreciation to the DSI for the consistency with which it had supported the National System of Innovation, despite budgetary constraints.